The Perception Obstacle for Women Pursuing Leadership in Evangelical Workplaces
With this incongruity, how is it still possible for women to become effective and accepted leaders within evangelical institutions?
The incongruity is an obstacle, just like many other obstacles women face—balance of work and family, limited opportunities, and personal limitations. The good thing about these obstacles is that there is usually a way around them, but it helps to be conscious that they're there.
Have these qualities associated with ideal leaders changed over time? If so, can some of this change be attributed to the increasing presence of women leaders in the workplace?
When this dynamic was first studied in the 1970s, people described successful leaders as having high leadership and task-oriented (competent, intelligent) traits. Now, when the same study has been conducted in different organizations across around the world, people describe successful leaders more in terms of transformational leadership characteristics. As for whether this change is because of more women in the workplace, that's probably a chicken-or-the-egg question.
What was most unexpected from your findings?
A few things were surprising. Women were oddly viewed as less relational than successful leaders. We might assume that women would be more relational than anybody else, but the study suggested otherwise. The responses might reflect our growing desire for more relational leaders.
Also, in most of the previous studies like this, there weren't any real differences between men and successful leaders, but in this study, men were viewed as less relational, task-oriented, and had less transformational leadership qualities than successful leaders. I'm not sure if this difference just reflects changes in what we, as a culture, value in leaders or whether Christians have different views on what it means to be a successful leader.
Also, as a group, women were viewed as different from successful leaders, but women leaders were similar to successful leaders. It's almost as if we think women leaders are exceptions to the rule. The few women in leadership are thought to be somehow different or extraordinary from other women—I call it the Superwoman Principle.
Did your research point to any ways in which evangelicals might move beyond theological debates about women in leadership?
This research emphasizes what complementarians and egalitarians have in common rather than where they differ. Complementarians and egalitarians agree that women are gifted to serve as leaders in certain capacities, but Christian women leaders have often been empirically overlooked by both groups in academic literature. I don't think the theological debates are going anywhere anytime soon, but I do hope this research shows there is room for another conversation about Christian women in leadership, such as how we can help women overcome challenges and thrive in their areas of influence. Regardless of which position the organization is more sympathetic to, we have a responsibility to ensure that individuals are free to exercise the gifts distributed by the Holy Spirit, unencumbered by obstacles in whatever form they may take.
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Previous Christianity Today coverage of women in leadership includes:
Baptist Fellowship Offering Cash Incentives to Churches Considering Female Pastors | Why leaders are willing to pay expenses for search committees that consider women for church leadership. (October 5, 2011)
Purity Practices: Coed Leadership Concerns | Old safeguards face coed workplace. (July 22, 2011)
A Liberating Woman: A Reflection on the Founder of Christians for Biblical Equality | Catherine Clark Kroeger championed women's equality without budging on scriptural authority. (July 12, 2011)